Sunday, June 29, 2008

TorahBytes: Learning from Moses (Hukkat)

Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. (Bemidbar / Numbers 20:6; ESV)

What do you picture when you think of Moses? Do you have visions of the Great Man of God with his face shining and the wind blowing though his hair? Do you hear a Prophet with booming voice, instructing God's people in his ways? Or how about the Wonder Worker with staff extended by the Red Sea as it parts miraculously before the people? Or do you see a Man of Steel confronting the King of Egypt demanding, "Let my people go, or else!"

While Moses did do these things, I don't think this truly provides an adequate picture of the man. Like anyone else, Moses was a complex human being with strengths and weaknesses. The extraordinary things he did were actually the work of God. God chose him for these tasks. God sent the plagues, parted the Red Sea, dictated the Torah, and protected and provided for the people all the years in the wilderness. As for Moses himself, when he was younger he tried to stand up for his people in his own way, resulting in his running for his life and spending forty years as a shepherd in the wilderness. When God eventually called him, he felt inadequate and fearful to the point that he basically told God "No".

This week's Torah portion relates another tragic affair in Moses' life. It is difficult to tell exactly what he did wrong in the rock-hitting incident, but God said to him, "Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them" (Bemidbar / Numbers 20:12; ESV).

If Moses failed at the end of his life, what hope is there for the rest of us? One could look at this and wonder how anyone could successfully serve God, but is that the intended message? Partly. One of the themes of Scripture is our intrinsic weakness, or perhaps more accurately, our sinfulness. The Bible confronts us with our inability to attain God's requirements or to meet his standards. We cannot make it on our own. In spite of all the books and seminars trying to tell us how to be successful, at the most basic level, on our own, we are doomed to failure. While it does seem that there are those who possess a veneer of success, as far as the things in life that count most, such as character, relationships, true spirituality, and so on, we all, like Moses, fall short.

In spite of Moses' failings, he demonstrates to us the key to living life the way God intended. Even though he did not do this perfectly, it was a foundational element in his life, especially once he accepted God's call. Once he embarked on his mission, he faced issue after impossible issue - whether it was Pharaoh's obstinance or his people's fickle ways; from an oppressive environment to the threat of hostile peoples; having to deal with political infighting, moral decadence, despair, and fear - Moses faced problem after problem after problem. But how did he deal with them? Prior to the hitting of the rock, there was no water - a life and death situation for the two million people that Moses was leading. The people, we are told, had "assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron" (Bemidbar / Numbers 20:2; ESV) - no water and a possible revolt. It's one thing to read this story, it's another to stop and realize what was really going on. Most of us get edgy when we miss coffee break and we fall apart when any one says a nasty word to us. May I suggest that this situation was far worse?

But what did they do? We read,

Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. (Bemidbar / Numbers 20:6; ESV)

Moses and Aaron went from being in the presence of the people to being in the presence of God. This wasn't some nice sweet prayer meeting. The Torah tells us they "fell on their faces." Moses and Aaron expressed great humility in God's presence as they demonstrated complete dependency upon him. It was in that place that God told them what to do. That Moses didn't do exactly as he was told, only underscores the point.

God calls us to be dependant on him. As we look at Moses throughout the Torah, this is what we see him do over and over again. With each and every challenging situation, Moses looked to God for wisdom and guidance. When we realize that Moses was in so many ways just like you and me, we may also see that we can and should follow his example.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

TorahBytes: Empty Things (Korah)

And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. (1 Samuel 12:21; ESV)

The monarchy in ancient Israel was established under the oversight of the prophet Samuel. Near the end of his life he exhorted the people to walk in God's ways. The verse I just read was part of that speech: "And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty" (1 Samuel 12:21; ESV). Good advise, but obvious, no? Why would anybody feel they would need to say "do not turn aside after empty things"?

"Empty things" is metaphorical language. Certainly Samuel isn't telling the Israelite to make sure that they don't use vessels that have nothing in them! He must be referring to "things" that they think could "profit or deliver" them, but according to Samuel, these "things" are "empty," meaning lacking value or use of any kind. This explains why at least one translation has "useless idols" (NIV) instead of "empty things." The translators must have thought that Samuel and his hearers would immediately understand that he was meaning idols specifically. Alternatively, the translators might have thought that we readers would not be able to figure out what "empty things" means, so they had to transform the figure of speech into something we would understand.

That idols are most likely included in Samuel's reference to "empty things" I accept. Idols would be the kind of thing that the people might "turn aside after" in hopes they might "profit or deliver". Samuel was reminding the people that such "things" are actually "empty" - they have no value; they are useless.

As for why he would need to tell them this, that's most likely due to the fact that people have been turning to idols for much, if not most, of human history. That they are useless and of no help has rarely stopped people from relying on them. Therefore I guess we have needed people like Samuel to tell us to "not turn aside" after them.

But Samuel didn't say "useless idols," the Hebrew words he spoke are more accurately represented by the English, "empty things", which would include "useless idols", but also every other "thing" that we might "turn aside after", but is in fact, empty.

Perhaps one of the most prevalent "empty things" of today is the increasingly popular personal approach to spirituality. In keeping with current post-modern thought, it has become more and more acceptable for individuals to develop a spirituality that "works for me." If a view of life makes sense to me and makes me feel good, then it is legitimate and acceptable. But the truth is that personal spirituality is "empty." Maybe it makes sense to you and makes you feel good, but there is a Reality and Truth that have nothing to do with personal opinion or taste. This is the Truth that Samuel knew; the Truth the Israelites were warned not to "turn aside" from.

The God of Israel is not "empty". He is the true God, the creator of the universe, the Master and Lord of all things. He alone is our help, our life, and our salvation. Nothing compares with Him. Anything else we may rely on is "empty".

Sadly, personal spirituality is increasingly in vogue among people who claim to believe the Bible. Many are concerned more with "what the Bible means to me" than simply "what the Bible means." If an interpretation "sits well," then it's deemed to be fine. Using the Bible this way also leads to the integration of all sorts of false spiritualities into a supposed biblical spirituality.

But these "empty things…cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty." Let us hear the words of Samuel and turn away from "empty things" and return to the reality of the one true God.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Book Review: The Shack

I decided to read "The Shack" by William P. Young, because of its great popularity and its enthusiastic endorsement by many Bible believers even though what I had heard about it indicated that it espoused a non-biblical spirituality.

Young deals with many important issues, including free will, the problem of evil, the love of God, forgiveness, passing judgment on others, abusive authority, etc. He does so through the fictional account (made to sound as if true - a key literary device used in "The Shack") of the main character, "Mack". Having suffered great personal tragedy, Mack receives a mysterious invitation to return to the place where the tragedy occurred.

At the shack, Mack encounters Young's depiction of the Trinity, namely "Papa" also called "Elousia" in the form of an Afro-American woman (though in one chapter "Papa" takes the form of a man, because in the experience that soon follows, as Papa says to him, "This morning you're going to need a father" [p. 210]). Papa as a woman is consistently called, "Papa," but using the pronoun "she." Jesus is called "Jesus" throughout and looks Jewish (he has a big nose). The Holy Spirit is an ethereal woman-like person with Asian features, named "Sarayu."

The bulk of the book is Mack's conversations and experiences with one or more of these three characters, plus a special appearance by a personification of Wisdom, aptly named "Sophia." The characters teach Mack what's what about himself, God, and life.

The style of the book evokes thought and emotion. The reader interacts with the other characters in the story through Mack. Mack is a sort of everyperson with questions about life that many of us have. He struggles through his strange experience with "God" in a way that I expect most of us would. As his heart softens to his experience, I suspect most readers would as well. I cannot say that the author intentionally manipulates the reader, but I have no doubt that if Young would have simply stated his theology, it woud be a lot more difficult to accept.

That Young uses story to communicate supposed theological truths should not in itself be an issue. We could mention many wonderful books that have done just that. The problem with "The Shack," however is that besides Young's questionable theology and ideology, he puts his ideas into the mouth of God. Some may not see a difference between C.S. Lewis's Aslan of Narnia or Bunyan's characters in Pilgrim's Progress and the characters of "The Shack," but both Lewis and Bunyan create fictional worlds through which they seek to communicate their version of truth. The reader in those cases knows that he is entering the writer's world and is invited to engage their ideas. Young creates a dream-like reality, where the reader's judgment is suspended and may easily confuse Young's fiction with truth. While "Papa" and "Sarayu" are extremely unusual depictions of the Father and the Spirit, the "Jesus" character is depicted as simply "Jesus". To write "And Jesus said" in any genre of writing, is best avoided unless we are quoting Scripture.

To make matter worse, Young's ideas themselves are far from biblical. As I mentioned, God the Father is depicted as "Papa" and most of the time is in the form of an Afro-American woman. This is reason enough to reject "The Shack" as legitimate. While God in his essence is not male or female, he has revealed himself in masculine terms, as "Father" in particular. While it has become increasingly popular to emphasize God's "feminine side," he chose to reveal himself in masculine terms. Jesus told us to pray "Our Father in heaven" (Mathew 6:9). Whatever value there may be in exploring the so-called feminine side of God, the Scriptures never encourage us to image God in feminine terms. Mack is told that the reason why Papa is depicted the way "she" is, is because she loves him and doesn't want him to fall back into religious stereotypes. Religious stereotypes may indeed be a problem, but not God-chosen biblical imagery. If we have misunderstood what God intends in the Scriptures, the Scriptures themselves will correct us, not new forms of spirituality.

We are given the impression that God's revelation of himself in the past was due to our need at the time. Since our current need is different, so God now reveals himself (herself?) to us differently. Even if that were true (which it is not), who is to decide how God is revealing himself? Young's depiction of God is one of his own making. It is not derived from the Scriptures. By using terms such as Elousia and Sarayu, we may suspect unbiblical spiritual sources. The gender-confused "Papa" may fit in with our post-modern society, but has no resemblance to the God of the Bible. And since when does God reveal himself according to our need? Our need is to accept God's revelation of himself. While God has accommodated himself to our understanding, he has done so in such a way to reveal to us who he really is. To change biblical images based on our needs or anything else is to risk changing the essence of God's Truth. There is more that can be said about the details of Young's version of God, but let's move on.

I mentioned that Young deals with some important questions, but his answers are unbiblical and extreme. For example, he attempts to resolve the issue of God's sovereignty and our free will by claiming that while God prefers us to do his will, we are always free to make our own decisions. Tell that to Pharaoh and Saul/Paul of Tarsus. According to Young, human institutions (namely religious, political, and economic) are the cause of all the evil in the world. The only things that matter to Young are love and relationships. This is Hippie talk, not Bible talk. Yes there are major wrongs that have been done through human institutions, but the problem is sin, not institutions. Governments, for example, according to Romans 13, have been instituted by God, not man, and they exist for a good purpose. Young "solves" the problem of evil and suffering, by calling us to understand the role that evildoers have in God's purposes. This is not the "you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good" of the story of Joseph (Genesis 50:20), but it is far more of a Hindu, "everything that happens is from God," so learn to accept life as it is without question. Yet Jesus taught us to pray "Your kingdom come, your will be done," not to sing "All you need is love."

Perhaps the reason why so many Christians love "The Shack" is because for the past several years we have played with and accepted all sorts of unbiblical concepts in the guise of legitimate spirituality. What Young has done is taken our current image of God and truth and rolled it into an appealing emotional package.

In the book of Acts with regard to the Bereans’ response to Paul's teaching, we read "they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so" (Acts 17:11). Paul instructed the Corinthian believers, "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said" (1 Corinthians 14:29). That "The Shack" might challenge our thinking or touch our hearts is one thing. But is Young's depiction of God scriptural? Are his answers to some of life's questions truly correct? God expects us to do more than accept something based on its appeal, its popularity, endorsements by famous people, or its emotional impact. We need to weigh whatever we are told and judge its validity based on God's Truth in the Bible. Based on this standard, "The Shack" falls flat.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

TorahBytes: Where Faith Begins (Shela Lekha)

Not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. (Bemidbar / Numbers 14:30; ESV)

Faith is a central theme of the Bible. According to the Bible it is through faith that human beings can actually know God. While the Bible addresses a great many themes, including the origins of life, the nature of God, and how human beings fit into the grand scheme of things, it is faith that makes God real to us and thus effectively connects us with the rest of God's Truth.

Having said that, faith is a concept that is not easily understood. I don't know if we really understand what faith is or how it works. I have the impression, at least among English speakers, that most people don't know that the words faith, believe, and trust are all from the same Hebrew and Greek word. This may explain why so many seem to struggle over the relationship of how we live and what we believe. But once we understand that to have faith in God is the same as trusting him, then it is easier to see how the way we live is derived from what we believe. Faith as expressed in the Scriptures is never something that resides solely in the mind. While faith has a cognitive element, which is to say that what we believe includes an acceptance of certain propositions, it is never only that, since if we truly believe something, it will be demonstrated in everything we do.

Another confusion over faith is that it is only a lifestyle, that by following a set of moral and religious guidelines we demonstrate faith. According to this emphasis, the engagement of mind and heart are not that important, if at all necessary. Faith in this case is more of faith in a system of sorts rather than a belief, and lacks a sense of having a personal relationship to God.

This week's Torah portion is helpful in understanding the basics of faith. In preparation for entering the Promised Land, God told Moses to send twelve scouts to report on the state of the Land to the people. Upon their return, they confirmed that the Land was just as God had told them. They also reported about the peoples currently living in the Land. Ten of the twelve scouts said that Israel would not be able to defeat these peoples, while only two, Joshua and Caleb, said that as long as God was on their side, everything would be okay. As it turned out the ten prevailed, and the people refused to believe God.

God's response to the people's unbelief was to cause Israel to wander in the wilderness for an additional 38 years until all the adults who did not believe died out. The only exceptions were Joshua and Caleb.

Note that the faith of Joshua and Caleb did not find practical expression, at least not at that time. Even though they expressed faith in God by their words, it is not as if they went and took the Land while the unbelievers stayed home. The unbelief of the majority aborted the mission for now. Joshua and Caleb would remain in the wilderness like everyone else. But God saw their hearts. Their faith set them apart from the others even though their faithful response would not have opportunity to fully express itself for many years. God knew what they were saying with their mouths was more than mere words. He acknowledged the genuineness of their faith without thier having to prove themselves.

There is little doubt that if the opportunity to take the Land then and there was given to Joshua and Caleb they would have done so. God knew that. But clearly fruit of their faith was not necessary to establish the reality of their faith.

No matter what we may face in life, it is true faith that keeps us in right relationship with God. True faith, as we see through the lives of Joshua and Caleb, begins in the heart and mind. It rarely ends there, but that's where faith begins.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

TorahBytes: The Great Harvest (Be-Ha'alotkha)

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. (Shemot / Leviticus 23:22; ESV)

The biblical festival of Shavuot (English: Weeks or Pentecost) begins this year on the evening of Sunday, June 8. Shavuot is one of the three festivals when, along with Pesach (English: Passover) and Sukkot (English: Booths) all the men of Israel were to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate. One of the traditions of this holy day is the reading of the book of Ruth. This is likely due to the relationship of the directive I quoted at the start to an element in the story of Ruth. Shavuot takes place around the time of the conclusion of the grain harvest and God instructed the people of Israel to leave the edges of their fields and the gleanings for the poor. In the story of Ruth, Ruth the Moabite gathers gleanings in the field of Boaz, the man who will eventually marry her.

The relationship of Shavuot to the story of Ruth foreshadows the great climax of Jewish destiny. When God called Abraham, he promised, "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Bereshit / Genesis 12:3). It was through Abraham's descendants that God would make himself known to all the nations of the world. God chose the Jewish people to be the light of the world (Isaiah 49:6). While the development of the people of Israel was to occur in virtual isolation, separate from the surrounding nations, the day would come when Israel would be God's instrument of world-wide blessing.

Ruth was of a member of one of the people groups with whom the people of Israel were not to intermarry (See Devarim / Deuteronomy 23:3). Yet God in his graciousness not only allowed Ruth to be joined to God's people, but made her the great-grandmother of King David, of whose lineage is the Messiah.

Ruth prefigures the gathering of the nations unto the God of Israel through the Messiah. Ruth's association with the harvest speaks of the great spiritual harvest among the nations. Through Ruth is descended the Messiah, the great representative of Israel and light to the Gentiles, the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham.

As the first followers of Yeshua gathered in Jerusalem during the first Shavuot following the return of the Messiah to heaven, Jewish people from all over the Roman empire were in the city for the festival. When God's Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit) came upon Yeshua's followers, they began to praise God in other languages. The Jewish visitors from outside the land of Israel were astonished to hear Yeshua's followers speaking in the languages of the countries from where they had come. Three thousand people came to believe in Yeshua that day.

One may think that this ingathering was the beginning of the anticipated harvest. But most of these new believers were Jewish people. This was not a turning of non-Jews to the God of Israel; it was a turning of Jewish people back to our own God. What was significant about these Jewish people is that they lived in various parts of the Roman Empire and spoke the languages of those regions. By God's Spirit they were now equipped to fulfill God's promise to Abraham. Through these new Jewish Believers the blessing of God would come to the Gentiles, the great harvest had begun - a harvest that has continued to this day.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

TorahBytes: You Began at Conception (Naso)

And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, "Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son. Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines." (Shoftim / Judges 13:3-5; ESV)

Ever since I came to believe in Yeshua, I have considered myself pro-life, or more specifically anti-abortion. Up until then I had accepted what I had been taught in 1973 while attending high school in the United States: that a fetus doesn't become a true human being until the fifth month.

I can't remember the process I went through regarding this issue a few years later after I had become a follower of the Messiah. Somehow believing that abortion was wrong went along with believing in the God of the Bible. I don't remember reading about it, having discussions about it, or hearing sermons about it. I just thought it was wrong.

To be totally honest, while I believed abortion was wrong and that human life began at conception, I was not convinced that we are called by God to protect preborn human life in the same way as we are to protect people who have been born. My thoughts were along the line that a baby breathing on its own was so considerably different from one who was still attached to his mother that abortion - wrong as it might be - should not be regarded as equivalent to murder.

Don't misunderstand me, whatever the differences may be between the preborn and the born, I still regarded abortion as a crime against humanity. That human beings would willfully terminate our preborn offspring is a sign of great depravity and should be considered a crime. Whatever differences there may be between the preborn and born children, the preborn must be protected from the misguided desires of those who wish to destroy it.

Whatever my views were on the subject, I had never really thought too deeply about it until recently. I am only now beginning to understand this evil for what it really is and have been looking to God to help me understand what should be done about it.

With regard to when human life begins - or more to the point - when does an individual's life begin - a life that should be protected by law and deserves to be viewed as precious and valued by all?

This week's Haftarah gives us some insight into God's perspective on this. It is the story of the foretelling of the birth of Samson. The angel that appeared to Samson's parents before he was born informed them that he would be a "Nazirite to God from the womb." A Nazirite was someone who took a special vow of consecration to God, usually for a limited time set by the person taking the vow. This is explained in this week's Torah portion, which is most likely the reason for the choosing of this particular Haftarah.

Normally being a Nazirite was completely voluntary on the part of the person taking the vow. In Samson's case, however, God predetermined that he would be such for his whole life even prior to birth. There are other biblical references to God having determined something about someone "from the womb." In these cases, it might simply be a way of saying "before he was born," without implying anything about the nature of the preborn. But in Samson's case, he actually was set apart as a Nazirite while still in the womb, implying individuality while in his preborn state. This is also made clear by the angel's instructions regarding his mother. While pregnant she was not to consume anything forbidden to a Nazirite. Samson was personally and individually a Nazirite while still in his preborn state.

This understanding of the nature of the preborn is also found in at least two other occasions in the Bible. Before Jacob and Esau were born, the Torah reads, "The children struggled together within her" (Bereshit / Genesis 25:22). Jacob and Esau were not non-person fetuses who would eventually become children. They were already children with personalities while still in their mother's womb. In the case of Yochanan HaMatbil (John the Baptist), when Miryam (Mary) greeted Yochanan's mother, Elisheva (Elizabeth), the preborn Yochanan leapt in his mother's womb (Luke 1:41). Elisheva described what happened as "the baby in my womb leaped for joy" (Luke 1:44).

To consider the preborn as anything less than a true human person is contrary to the biblical perspective. You began at conception. From that point the only significant changes you experienced were development and birth. Terminating a pregnancy is the murder of an individual person in their preborn state. Just as Samson's parents needed to adjust their lives for the sake of their preborn child, so we need to make whatever adjustments are necessary to protect the lives of our preborn children.